Experimental archaeology employs a number of different methods, techniques, analyses, and approaches in order to generate and test hypotheses, based upon archaeological source material, like ancient structures or artifacts. It should not be confused with primitive technology which is not concerned with any archaeological or historical evidence. Living history and historical reenactment, which are generally undertaken as a hobby, are the layman’s version of this academic discipline.
One of the main forms of experimental archaeology is the creation of copies of historical structures using only historically accurate technologies. This is sometimes known as reconstruction archaeology; however, reconstruction implies an exact replica of the past, when it is in fact just a construction of one person’s idea of the past; the more archaeologically correct term is a working construction of the past.
A popular construct of experimental archaeology is one in which our ancestors spent a lot of their time: the Roundhouse. Various designs, from different time periods have been used, from the Bronze Age through to the post-Roman Saxon period. Comparing some of the efforts, it sometimes seems that the only common factor in the design is the ’round’ shape!
Many of these efforts can be visited by the public, others are ‘locked away’, only available for private hire, or no longer exist.
Anglesey – Llynnon Mill
Completed in 2007 these two reproduction Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age Roundhouses now form part of a living museum on the Llynnon Mill site near the village of Llanddeusant on Anglesey. Open from Easter to late September, an admission charge applies.
Cambridgeshire – Flag Fen
Two roundhouses here, one Bronze Age, the other Iron Age within the Flag Fen Archaeology Centre grounds near Peterborough. Admission charges apply.
In 2002, students from the Ridge Danyers Sixth Form College were involved in a European Community Culture Programme, The Mnesonyme Project, to reconstruct an Iron Age Roundhouse on the site, which remains in place, providing an evocative reminder of how the area might have looked during this period. Accessibility is currently unknown.
Cornwall – Bodrifty
The Roundhouse is an “authentic and atmospheric replica, based on the largest (‘Hut A”) in the scheduled Bodrifty Iron Age Settlement just three fields away. The construct is available for let as a holiday home with a difference!
Dorset – Ancient Technology Centre, Cranborne
The Iron Age roundhouse here had stood for 26 years, but last year (2011) the decision was made to
rebuild it. Thatching was due to be completed earlier this summer and the new building should now be
available for use once again. Also on site are 5 other ancient building reconstructions, including a
Viking Longhouse and Neolithic Log Cabin.
Essex – Hadleigh Country Park
Since 2000, the Country Park at Hadleigh has run a ‘living education’ programme based on the Saxons –
Hadleigh is of Saxon origin meaning “clearing in the heath”. Site staff wanted to expand this work to cover other periods in history and at the same time provide a much-needed building to give school groups a sheltered working environment. Many options were considered, but the wish to build something dramatic and unique to the county led to the proposal to build a replica Iron Age roundhouse.
Hadleigh’s roundhouse is based on a floor plan from an archaeological excavation at Little Waltham,
Hampshire – Butser Farm
Ever since Butser Ancient Farm has been running, there has always been a ‘great’ round house, based on an archaeological excavation. The first one was on Butser Spur, set up in 1972, based on a house named ‘The Balksbury House’ from Balksbury Camp, an Iron Age plateau enclosure situated on the outskirts of Andover. In 1976 a second site, known as ‘The Pimperne House’ and based on an excavation on Pimperne Down, Dorset was started in the valley bottom nearby, at Hillhampton Down. This was dismantled in 1990. In 1991 the project moved to the Bascomb Down Site, where it still continues. The Longbridge Deverel House’, built in 1992 was based on an excavation at Cowdown, in Wiltshire. The house was dismantled in 2006. In 2007 work started on ‘The Little Woodbury House’ (House1) from Britford, near Salisbury, Wiltshire.
Oswestry – Park Hall
In 2009 a reproduction of an Iron Age roundhouse was built at Park Hall to complement the development of the nearby Old Oswestry Iron Age Hillfort. Visitors can view the Roundhouse and its interior at any time (Admission fee to the park applies). Interpretation boards and artefacts offer an insight to the life of Iron Age people.
Pembrokeshire – Castell Henllys
Castell Henllys (Welsh, “castle of the old court”) is an important archaeological site in north Pembrokeshire, Wales, between Newport and Cardigan. This Iron Age hillfort has been the subject of an ongoing excavation for more than twenty years, accompanied by an exercise in reconstruction archaeology whereby experiments in prehistoric farming have been practised. Four roundhouses and a granary have been reconstructed on their original Iron Age foundations.
If you have a favourite replica roundhouse, why not leave a comment and tell us about it? And if you’re visiting one of the sites above, or anything similar this month, please fill in our brief survey.